York boats — carried freight and people on the great inland waterways of the Northwest

by Bruce Cherney

One of the unique features of the fur trade out of York Factory was the use of York boats. 

While the North West Company based in Montreal hired local men well versed in handling birch bark canoes, the Hudson’s Bay Company men were typically from the Orkney Islands and mainland Scotland who lacked a tradition of canoe building. Instead, the HBC men devised their own watercraft based upon designs that reflected their Viking heritage and the skills learned as boat-builders and rowers on their home islands off the northeast coast of Scotland.

Among the Orkneymen “noted as a boat builder in the company of the Hudson’s Bay Company” was William Drever, a successful Winnipeg merchant who originally came to Canada to work for the HBC in 1841.

According to the HBC’s website, the sturdy boat that the men produced was named after its final destination — York Factory along Hudson Bay. 

The flat-bottomed York boat was “clinker” built — planks making up its sides were overlapped, the lower edge overlapping the upper edge, a feature found in the Viking longships used for raiding and their Knarrs used for freight carrying and transporting settlers to far-off lands such as Iceland and Greenland. 

Isaac Cowie, a businessman and historian originally from the Shetland Islands, wrote a Winnipeg Free Press article on March 24, 1906, supporting the construction of a railway to Hudson Bay since it was “the natural commercial outlet of the West.” To back his assertion, Cowie referred to the glory days of the HBC when York boats plied inland waters from York Factory across the northwest.

In his article, Cowie wrote: “... the Islanders and Highlanders from the north of Scotland, the Norse and the Gael, who, landing at the ports of the Bay, built themselves (York) boats of the model and with the rig of the galley of the Norsemen; and winding their way through the wonderful web of waterways ... penetrated to the foothills of the Rockies, and, by making portages over the watersheds, into the great streams flowing into the Arctic and Pacific oceans.”

The stem and stern of the York boat was pointed and “raked” at up to a 45-degree angle, making it relatively easy to beach or backwater the boat off a sandbar.

York boats also performed well in icy conditions, making them ideal for northern exploration. The boats were used by trailblazers such as the British Navy’s ill-fated Sir John Franklin during his earliest Arctic explorations.

A York boat was approximately 12.6 metres in length and weighed about 900 kilograms. 

Typically, eight men, regularly referred to as “tripmen,” comprised the crew — six oarsmen manning six-metre-long oars weighing over 11 kilograms each, a bowman and a steersman. 

When the wind was favourable, a square sail could be quickly erected (the sail also served as a tent). 

Having never before witnessed such a watercraft, Julian Ralph, in his

February 1, 1892, article A Skin for a Skin, in the American publication Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, described a York boat as “a cumbrous big-timbered little schooner, like a surf-boat with a sail.”

Being a member of a York boat was not for the faint-hearted as men rowed for up to 16 hours a day. When the water was shallow, the boats were poled. In swift water, the boats were “tracked,” that is, pulled using two ropes towed by the crew along a riverbank. The boats were manhandled over frequent pre-cleared portages — tramways — using log rollers and ropes. Since trips were usually by brigades of boats, there were plenty of men available to handle the difficult portages. 

Winnipeg historian George Bryce (1844-1931) wrote in his book, The Remarkable History of the Hudson’s Bay Company, that the York Boat was introduced by HBC Governor Sir George Simpson, who became governor-in-chief of the HBC and its territories in North America. His powerful position and  autocratic manner earned him the nickname the “Little Emperor.”

Simpson may have ordered that York boats replace canoe transportation in the fur trade, but by 1746, an early version of the York boat existed at Fort Albany along James Bay, while other versions of the boat were being improved upon at York Factory in the 1750s.

Cowie said replacing the canoes

of the Nor’Westers with the HBC’s York boats came down to the

economics of the routes used by the two companies. He said York Factory was 1,600 kilometres closer to the fur trade region than distant Montreal, which had been the base of the North West Company until it merged with the HBC in 1821.

“It was a battle of freight rates which settled that issue and the Hudson Bay route won,” wrote Cowie, “at $6 per 100 lbs. from London to Fort Garry, as against $45 per 100 lbs. from Montreal.”

While Cowie used history to prove the Hudson Bay route was viable for a railroad, the real advantage of the York boat was its carrying capacity — as much as 3,200 kilograms versus the 1,360 kilograms of the largest canot du nord (north canoe). 

Bryce wrote that the cargo of  a York boat was made up of 75 “inland pieces” (tightly packed bales) weighing about 30 kilograms each. “A good half-breed (Métis) crew ... was able to load a boat and pack the pieces securely in five minutes.”

There were two main routes used by the York boat brigades: the Portage La Roche brigade travelled between York Factory, Norway House and the Saskatchewan River (a route into the northwest interior), while the Portage La  Loche brigade travelled the route between York Factory, Norway House and the Red River Settlement (centred around today’s Winnipeg).

An article in the Nor’Wester (the Red River Settlement’s first newspaper) announced the arrival on July 28, 1860, of the first brigade of 30 Portage La Loche boats dispatched to Norway House to collect goods brought from England. “They had been twenty-one days on the journey, and had thus made one of the most rapid passages ever known. The average time of the homeward voyage is about one month, and it not unfrequently happens that the boats are detained over six weeks by contrary winds and storms on Lake Winnipeg.”

One such “contrary” voyage of three weeks to cross Lake Winnipeg was reported in the same newspaper on September 10, 1863. It was late in the season and the “extraordinary delay caused many of the voyageurs to fear that time would not admit of their going to York (Factory) at all, if they wished to get back to the (Red River) Settlement.”

Once the York boats from Red River had travelled the length of Lake Winnipeg, the route followed was from Norway House along the shore of Little Playgreen Lake to Oxford House along the shore of Oxford Lake and then up the Hayes River to York Factory. Popular Victorian-era writer  Robert M. Ballantyne explained in his autobiography of six years service with the HBC — starting in 1841 — that 36 portages of varying lengths had to be traversed between Red River and York Factory.

Crossing each portage required boats to be unloaded with the crew transporting all its contents — conveniently made into individual 30-kilogram “inland pieces” when possible — using a shaped leather tumpline passed around the man’s forehead with the ends attached to one 30-kilogram bundle that hung at the small of the back. The tripmen were expected to carry two bundles with the second placed in the hollow formed behind his neck.  

At more lengthy portages, tramways were constructed to more quickly move the boats around rapids. According to the HBC website, Robinson Portage on the Hayes River has some well preserved remnants of the old tramway which was used to transport the York boats around the rapids.

The previously cited September 10, 1863, voyage to York Factory explained the difficulties the brigade faced after reaching Norway House. “They found that the water communication thence to York Factory was a sham, and that, for the most part, the boats would have to ply on marshes, mud, or gravel, if they were to proceed to York.”

James Grahame, the HBC’s chargé-d’-affaires at Norway House, offered an extra 30 shillings a man if they went on to York Factory, but “very few accepted the offer, and all were allowed to come back” to Red River.

The Nor’Wester raised the rhetorical question of who was to blame for the “failure of the expedition? The Company, the freighters, or the boat-men?”

While not assigning blame, the newspaper said it illustrated “one of the standing difficulties of this country — the want of a good route.”

York boat freighting was not confined to the HBC, as private companies had also arisen, building boats and employing men to make the journey from Red River to York Factory. 

John J. Gunn of East Selkirk (1861-1907), wrote in his book, Echoes of the Red, that steersmen were paid $40, bowmen $35 and middlemen, or rowers, $30 for a round trip from Red River to York Factory.

“The duties of the steersman was to steer his boat, ability for which involved a thorough knowledge of every bit of dangerous water ... a thing to (be) acquired only by years of experience; and at portages to lift the bales or ‘pieces’ as they were called, from the boat and place them on the back of the carriers. The bowman, besides rowing and carrying at portages, had to stand in the bow of the boat at rapids and shoals and by word or sign apprise the steersman of the nature of the course ahead, and also to assist him in avoiding obstacles or keeping the boat in the proper course by means of a pole held in his hands for that purpose. The duties of middlemen included rowing, in calm weather or against adverse winds, ‘tracking’ the boats at rapids  and other places where necessary, and carrying the goods across portages when loading or unloading.”

Donald Gunn (1797-1878), a former HBC employee, Red River educator and author, wrote of the financial hardships of being a York boat owner or tripman, especially following the sinking of the barque Kitty of Newcastle on September 10, 1859. The barque was en route to York Factory from England carrying a year’s supply of goods for the HBC post.

In a letter to the Nor’Wester, published on March 14, 1860, Gunn wrote: “I will now endeavour to give you some idea of the extent to which the non-arrival of the ship (Kitty) must affect the master-freighters. Last August they fitted out their boats at great expense, and these boats had little, if any, freight for the Bay. After arriving there, they had to remain for weeks anxiously looking to the broad sea for the ship from which they expected their cargos. Week after week passed, the season was getting late, the weather cold, but no ship appeared. And at length, knowing that the time of open water before them would be short enough to allow them to return to the Settlement, they beat their course for Red River, where they arrived on the 10th or 15th of October ... And as the Company’s outfit for the fur-trade has been lost with the Kitty, very little, if any, of their goods in store this winter at York Factory, will be taken to this place ... Under these circumstances, the freighters can hardly expect any employment next summer, and so in all probability, their boats will be lying on the beach and decaying.”

Gunn said the sinking of the Kitty deprived local merchants “of their stock-in-trade” for at least a year, “and their shops being empty ... their customers will have to go to the fortunate few who have supplied themselves from the United States.”

Unfortunately for the Red River merchants, all the goods remaining at York Factory from previous years’ shipments were reserved solely for the HBC’s fur trade and supplying its other posts.

When reporting the details of the sinking of the Kitty, the Nor’Wester said: “There  was a great loss of property — the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Red River Settlers being the sufferers. In most cases, the goods had been insured, and so the loss was only temporary; but what was insured — consisting chiefly of importations by private persons for their own use — is, of course, absolutely and forever gone.”

The Nor’Wester said the sinking of the Kitty, the sometime failure of brigades to make their way to York Factory and the arrival of steamboats at Red River “gives a death blow to the Hudson’s Bay” route.

The first steamboats may have signalled the dawning of a new transportation era, but for years, goods had been shipped from the south by Métis via lumbering Red River carts. The Sayer case in 1849 made “free trade” a reality, resulting in the Métis openly trading with Yankee merchants.

On February 5, 1861, the newspaper reported that Nicol Finlayson had been engaged by the HBC to build a number of York boats at York Factory to bring freight south. “If this is the case, the Company will probably do all their own freighting, and private parties will not have much inducement to continue the business. So far as they are concerned, the York route would, in all likelihood, fall into disuse, something which would not, we believe, occasion them much regret. It is a very tedious, round-about way of getting goods from England, and one which has subjected the freighters to numerous losses and annoyances, whether they carried for others or themselves.”

When the steamer Anson Northup pulled into Fort Garry for the first time in 1859, it was greeted with fanfare. A year later, “the booming of cannon at Fort Garry and the shrill sound of the steam-whistle announced the return of the Anson Northup,” according to the June 14, 1860, Nor’Wester. “The news set the people in commotion, and before long a stream of anxious individuals started for the fort, near which the boat already lay, with the Stars and Stripes waving at the fore and the Union Jack at the stern.”

In 1860, the HBC recognized the merits of the Red River route and for the first time began to import goods from Minnesota — it would eventually have a steamboat monopoly on the Red with the help of St. Paul merchants Norman Kittson and J.J. Hill — although York boats were still used to bring the goods into the interior  from Fort Garry.

In the same year, only 15 boats made the journey from York Factory to Red River and only 28 boats, or  one-third of the normal number, left Red River for York Factory.

“Only a small proportion of the goods consumed in this country now come from Hudson Bay,” reported the Nor’Wester on July 28, 1860, “of the rest, what is not purchased in the States, nevertheless comes to us through the States.”

Even on the great inland rivers and lakes, the York boats were falling into disuse and being replaced by Steamboats. Steamers such as the Colville and Maggie plied Lake Winnipeg in the 1870s, while others traversed the Assiniboine and Saskatchewan rivers.

The final blow was the advent of railways with the first train from the south reaching St. Boniface in 1878. The boat factories at York Factory and Norway House were abandoned and old boats were left to rot. 

But not all York boats met this fate throughout the northwest. Valentine McKay wrote a May 2, 1959, article for the Free Press, which described his father’s continued use of a York boat to travel in the region around Cumberland House before his retirement from the HBC. When McKay’s father retired in 1898, the 13-year-old boy and his family made the journey via York boat from Cumberland House on the Saskatchewan River to Grand Rapids on Lake Winnipeg, where the McKays permanently settled.

York boats were still used in the early 1900s to convey goods on Lake Winnipeg — sometimes towed by powered vessels — and by surveyors for the Hudson Bay Railway.

The so-called last York boat was built by Roderick Smith for the “most elaborate spectacle ever seen in Winnipeg,” according to the Free Press, which commemorated the 250th anniversary of the HBC. On the morning of May 2, 1920, the “Red River pageant”  of canoes and York boats started at the Provencher Bridge and paddled and rowed to Lower Fort Garry where the flotilla was met by Sir Robert Kindersley, the governor of the HBC. Hundreds of people lined the banks of the Red to witness the spectacle.

The York boat built by Smith was later donated to Lower Fort Garry (now a national park and historic site) as a display. Today, a York boat shed is among the attractions at the Parks Canada national historic site.

In recent years, there has been a renewal of interest in York boats in recognition of their significance to the fur trade and settlement of Western Canada. 

York Boat Days, held each summer at Norway House, is a celebration of the York boat’s historical importance to the community. The York boat races at Norway House were first held in 1974, when a 10-man crew from Split Lake, all grandsons of York boatmen, took the major prize.

The 2002 television production, Quest for The Bay (Winnipeg’s Credo Productions), features a modern-day crew manning a York boat and retracing the old 1,225-kilometre fur trade route from Fort Garry (Winnipeg) to York Factory.

Today, visitors to the waterfront at Selkirk, Manitoba, can view a 6.4-metre-long, 2,495-kilogram bronze statue of a York boat and crew by sculptor Peter Sawatzky, called Perilous Crossing.